|Today marks the start of President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, a historic proceeding of TBD significance that will serve at least two functions as it plays out. The first is an assessment as to whether the country’s institutions will hold the former president accountable for fueling the insurrection at the Capitol last month with his rhetoric, and the second is to function as a kind of litmus test sussing out the shape of the American public’s relationship with politics writ large as we drift deeper into the Biden presidency. Given the incentives of Senate Republicans, the former outcome feels all but predetermined. The latter, though, seems much less clear.
It’s been posited numerous times over the last few years that the Trump presidency compelled more Americans towards greater engagement with political news — if not actual political participation — than ever before. But in the wake of Biden’s inauguration, the natural questions beg to be asked: Will those levels of political awareness and engagement be sustained? And what does it mean for the new media shops built over the past four years to feed this new engagement?
Those questions loomed in the background last week when I jumped on a phone call with the executive team at CAFE, the media company started by the former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. We were connecting for a specific news peg: the launch of Doing Justice, CAFE’s first foray into narrative audio work. Produced in collaboration with Transmitter Media, Bharara describes the six-part podcast series as “a labor of love,” with the show expanding upon the work he’s done for his best-selling 2019 book of the same name. While the book was positioned as a treatise of sorts on the American legal system and the questions of morality embedded within, the podcast offers a more grounded approach that revisits some of the cases discussed in the book, opens them back up as stories (through new interviews and material), and uses them as ways to grapple with larger questions about the nature of justice.
Doing Justice, the podcast series, is also a window into the future as considered by CAFE, which, like many other politically oriented podcast operations, has to figure out its place in the world now that the Trump presidency has come to an end.
“We’re growing like wild grass,” says Bharara in response to a question about the state of the business, before acknowledging the awkwardness of the quick metaphor. “We’re very optimistic about the outlook, we’re doing great in terms of talent, and we’re doing well in terms of listenership.”
Confident optimism, it seems, despite the fact that CAFE’s lane — which I’ll broadly describe as the genre of “newsy podcasts hosted by political and legal figures” — has exploded in recent years, and looks poised to only get more crowded as carious political figures pushed out by the recent election cycle seek out more media footholds to stay in the conversation. (This crowd apparently includes former Vice President Mike Pence, who will reportedly host a podcast in the coming months for a conservative youth organization, according to Politico.) But Bharara’s podcasting efforts are distinct for being among the earliest and most explicitly built for the long haul. It’s also certainly the one with the most interesting backstory.
You probably know the tale by now, but just in case: Bharara was once the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, one of the most powerful law enforcement positions in the country to which he was nominated by President Obama in 2009 and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. In the role, Bharara came to be known for his prosecution of political corruption, financial malfeasance, and organized crime, caring out a mythology that’s the stuff of crime novels. (Or, you know, semi-prestige television drama. This is the point where I customarily point out that Bharara is said to be the inspiration for Paul Giamatti’s character in Billions, though, as anybody who’s seen the show can tell you, the basis is obviously a loose one.) The legacy behind that mythology has been deemed by some to be somewhat complicated, but in any case, Bharara’s profile rose to further prominence in the spring of 2017, when President Trump’s Justice Department ordered for the resignation of 46 U.S. attorneys who were holdovers from the Obama era. This is normally a routine procedure when a new administration takes over, but the Trump presidency being what it was, there was some amount of chaos during this stretch, evoking concerns of ethical impropriety. Bharara refused the order to resign under the circumstances and was eventually dismissed by the president.
Bharara then went into academia, while going on to forge an intriguing second career in the media. In addition to serving as a reliable talking head on CNN, he launched Stay Tuned with Preet, initially in collaboration with Pineapple Street, in the fall of 2017. The podcast is chiefly constructed to break down the major legal topics of the day, mixing in interviews with interesting and powerful people from interesting and powerful places. Like all podcasts built around a singular personality, the show occasionally drifts from its newsy lens from time to time — a recent example includes an appearance by the chef and also-podcaster David Chang — providing Bharara the space to round out his persona.
Stay Tuned is an unusually interesting show for its archetype. It’s typically measured, thoughtful, and technically driven, balancing out its inherent insider nature with what feels like a genuine interest in bringing laypeople into the process. I’ve been a semi-regular listener since its debut, and between Stay Tuned, The Lawfare Podcast, and All The Presidents’ Lawyers, I suppose it’s possible to say that all that listening has bestowed me with a casual awareness of the legal side of various political stories that bubbled up over the years. Whether I’ll actually be able to do anything with all that information is a line of inquiry for another time.
Anyway, Stay Tuned would form the basis of CAFE, which went on to integrate a paid subscription model into the business. Stay Tuned, which these days averages about two millions downloads per month, is primarily monetized through advertising — the company works with Stitcher for sales and handles some of those efforts themselves — but it is in the company’s subscription business, called CAFE Insider (priced at $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year), where the team gets to play around with new product ideas. Paid subscribers, which I’m told number in the “tens of thousands,” receive regular written briefs on the latest issues from Bharara and CAFE contributors, which are also available in adapted audio form through the CAFE Insider podcast feed. That feed also contains an assortment of CAFE’s other audio shows, like United Security and Cyber Space, which are only available for paid subscribers, with select episodes being made available on the Stay Tuned feed from time to time.
CAFE was originally positioned as a brand within the Some Spider Studios, the media company started by Preet’s brother, the entrepreneur Vinit Bharara. (Best known, perhaps, as the co-founder of Diapers.com, which was acquired for half a billion dollars by Amazon in 2010. That story, by the way, is also pretty wild.) That arrangement wouldn’t last, as Some Spider Studios would eventually lean harder into being a parenting media company, particularly after acquiring Fatherly in early 2020. CAFE spun out as its own separate corporate entity over the past year, though Some Spider does continue to provide some back-end services. The two entities also share a Chief Business Officer: Geoff Isenman, a veteran media executive.
Tamara Sepper, an attorney and Peabody-winning journalist who now serves as CAFE’s Chief Content and Development Officer, describes the company’s editorial strategy as being based on the principle that the law touches everybody’s lives. “Now, that doesn’t mean all of our shows are about the legal technicalities, obviously — it’s just that they’re all inspired by this lens,” she adds.
Bharara frames what they do as a form of public service, further noting that virtually all of CAFE’s contributors have themselves spent considerable time in public service. This, pretty much, is the basis of what the company argues as its differentiating value: Who else is best equipped to break down how the law works than former federal prosecutors?
But the nature of that expertise also presents a somewhat unique challenge for CAFE. Part of the complication of managing a portfolio of podcasts hosted by former public servants is that some of those hosts could become active public servants once again. And that’s precisely what has happened over the past few months: Lisa Monaco, a former Homeland Security advisor who co-hosted United Security (with Ken Wainstein), was recently nominated by President Biden to be the Deputy Attorney General of the United States. Similarly, John Carlin, who hosted Cyber Space, now serves as the Acting Deputy Attorney General and is further expected to stay with the Justice Department after the role wraps up.
These shifts mean that Monaco and Carlin can no longer host podcasts for CAFE, as that would be a breach of government policy, according to Bharara. “Based on my time in the Justice Department — back when ethics rules mattered — you couldn’t work in some other capacity for income while you were a high-ranking official in the government,” he explains. In any case, they’d probably be too busy doing their jobs to host a podcast, Bharara adds, recalling his own time as a U.S. Attorney.
I asked if all that works out to some form of strategic risk for the company, seeing how they work with hosts who could be lost, quite suddenly, to active public service roles. Sepper says it’s a dynamic they’ve long planned for and that it’s just the natural price to be paid for this specific editorial strategy. In any case, they could always come back as guests. Bharara notes it’s pretty much the same kind of risk faced by any other media company working with talent that could be easily recruited for other jobs. “It’s a risk for everybody, up to and including me,” he says.
Besides, CAFE could always add more contributors and more products, as they already are. Dig through the CAFE Insider feed, and you’d find material from several recent additions, including the lawyer and CNN commentator Asha Rangappa, the legal scholar Melissa Murray, along with former U.S. Attorneys Barbara McQuade and Joyce Vance. Meanwhile, the publisher is already working on more narrative audio projects, including Up Against The Mob, a series hosted by Elie Honig — a fellow former attorney for the Southern District of New York who already contributes to the CAFE Brief newsletter — that will take listeners into the SDNY’s efforts to go after organized crime in the city. Honig will also appear on a short-form podcast covering the second impeachment trial, called Third Degree.
A good deal of growing is on the way, which raises the question: Just how big does CAFE want to get? “I don’t think we have a particular target of doubling in size every six months,” says Bharara. Isenman, the company’s Chief Business Officer, adds: “It’s not about the revenue, or the number of shows, but it’s about the diversity of shows and diversity of types.” To that end, they’re starting to think about other genres worth trying out. True crime, obviously, is a natural fit, given the nature of CAFE’s hosts as former prosecutors, but the team also sees possibilities in the business and history genres.
They’ve given some thought to doing more work across platforms, in addition to the written and live-events work they already do. Everything’s on the table, but Isenman says they think about those prospects in two ways: First, can another platform support what they’re already doing in audio? And second, is it something that can lead to substantial growth for the business? They didn’t seem to be in any rush, and they maintain that they’re pretty sure their core business will continue to be audio.
As mentioned at the top of this column, the team is optimistic about the outlook of the business. But since I went into the conversation wondering about the whole American public interest in news thing, I asked if they had seen any listening dips since inauguration day. Bharara says they haven’t, though he qualified the finding by noting the broader context: We’re obviously just about a month into the new presidency, and we’re about to head into the second impeachment trial, a buzzy news period. Plus, “there may be a whole hell of a lot of other things going on with holding Trump and his allies accountable, perhaps for many more months,” he says.
I follow up: Does he think American news interest and engagement will sustain into the new administration?
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot… obviously, everybody has,” says Bharara. “There are people who say — and I hope this is right, not just for our business but for the country — that lots of people who didn’t pay as much attention to politics before are awakened to it now. Listen: just because Trump is gone, it doesn’t mean that Trumpsim is gone. Trump himself could come back in four years. If we’re going to be a successful country, all of those people who were engaged… I hope and expect that most of them will stay the course, because there’s a lot in the ship that still needs righting.”
They do, in any case, see some positive threads from the fact that some of Stay Tuned‘s biggest download numbers come from episodes that weren’t about Trump or his policies. Sepper pointed to a few such examples: They include the stretches where the pandemic and the summer of protest were the main focus, along with generalist interviews with people like Eric Lander, the president of MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute, who talked about scientific frontiers; with Robert Caro, the famed historian and journalist; and Bryan Stephenson, the lawyer and activist.
“Maybe there will be some drop off in six months or a year, because people don’t want to be bothered anymore now that Biden is president — frankly, we’ll probably see more of that with the cable news networks,” says Bharara. “We’re keeping an eye on audiences, but I’m not overly concerned about it. I think we’ll still be deeply interesting to folks.”